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Fourth in a Series: A Rising Southside
This week we are publishing postings from people driving the economic and cultural redevelopment of the Southside. We welcome submissions from readers who want to share their own views on a rising Southside. [Read more: “It’s The Decade of Downtown, But Don’t Miss San Antonio’s Rising Southside.]
As a young boy I lived with my two younger brothers, George and Gary, in a neighborhood on the Southside of San Antonio. It was a young boys’ paradise, especially along the San Antonio River. When the river reached the Southside it took on a natural meandering path with green embankments where we fished, swam and played on the riverbanks.
What we didn’t know is that our river, our backyard playground, was destined for destruction. In 1954, the U.S. Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin a flood control project along 31 miles of the San Antonio River and its tributaries. The Corps built concrete embankments in some places, denuded trees lining the banks, installed boulders and riprap, and loose stones in the soft ground under the river. Tremendous environmental damage was done to the river, its banks and wildlife. as a city was made safer from flooding. In the process, a river was sacrificed.
A few months before I was elected County Judge in 2001, Congress passed legislation that authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to repair damage to river environments they had previously destroyed. This presented the very real possibility of substantial federal funding for restoration of the river flowing south. Yet that federal funding would be slow to come. It would take four more years of planning before the first river restoration project could get under way.
On Jan. 7, 2004, then-Mayor Edward Garza and I kicked off the first restoration project planned by the Corps. The $8.2 million Eagleland Reach segment funded by the City and County stretched nearly one mile down to Lone Star Boulevard, which borders Roosevelt Park. The concrete channel would be removed. A small overflow type dam, called a weir, would be built to create pools of water. Rock and riffle waterfalls would also be created. Native grasses, flowers, and cypress trees would be planted and hike and bike trails built.
As the project evolved, it became a visible example of what the river going another eight miles south to Mission Espada could look like. But our only source of federal funding would be the haphazard small amount of funds we received through what was then known as Congressional earmarks – what some called “pork”.
I knew that unless the Bexar County Commissioners Court stepped up and took the leadership on the eight-mile Mission Reach we would never get the project completed. On July 25, 2007, Commissioners Court passed an order for $21.6 million in advance funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to begin work on the Mission Reach. We also adopted a 10-year, $500 million flood control plan that provided additional money for the Mission Reach.
In 2008 we went to the voters and they approved an additional $125 million for the Mission Reach. In August 2009 we sold some $306 million in county bonds to cover the cost associated with Mission Reach and other flood control projects. We now had assured funding for the Mission Reach.
It was a big deal when we celebrated the opening of the first two miles of the Mission Reach on the morning of Saturday, June 25, 2011. The river from Lone Star Boulevard to Mission Road, next to the Riverside Golf Course, would be opened to joggers, walkers, and cyclists. We held the ceremonies on the Theo Bridge that crosses the river a few hundred yards from the Mission Concepción portal we had built.
We had mariachi open the ceremonies under a large tent. I acted as the master of ceremonies and citied a poem wrote about the river running south. Finally, we were now following it. But more than just the excitement of the opening, we had a speaker who provided a little surprise for that gathering of people who had been so supportive of the project.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversaw the National Park Service, joined us for the occasion. Prior to our ceremony I had traveled to Washington with Henry Muñoz to meet with the Secretary regarding the possibility of having the Missions given a World Heritage designation.
My own involvement began in 2007 when Los Compadres, a foundation and support group for the Missions, submitted an application to the Office of International Affairs, National Park Service. The timing was good because in 2007 we had taken the first steps to fund the Mission Reach. The restoration of the river would play an important part in helping us to secure the designation.
In addition to the historic nature of the Missions and the restoration of the river, we also had seven historic acequias, 13 miles of irrigation ditches, and the oldest working Spanish aqueduct and dam in the United States. In 2008, 14 sites were placed on a tentative list, including our Missions.
So here we were at an uplifting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the first two miles of the river and the Secretary adds to the celebration by announcing that he would support putting the five San Antonio Missions on the world stage by supporting their designation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage site.
The designation of World Heritage Sites dates back to November 16, 1972, when the General Conference of UNESCO adopted a provision for the protection of World culture and Natural heritage sites. Never have the nations of the world agreed in such an overwhelming manner as they did when 190 nations ratified the agreement.
With such a designation our missions would join the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Park. San Antonio would be home to the only World Heritage Site in Texas.
When Salazar announced his support, our missions took a great leap forward. Commissioners Court voted the following September to provide $10,000 to help provide international expert opinions on the competitive application process. We then followed up with economic impact study that showed the designation would have a $100 million impact [PDF].
We are quickly reaching the conclusion of construction of the Mission Reach, which we will celebrate Oct. 5. It is the largest ecological restoration of an urban river in the United States, a great place for recreation, an economic generator, a flood control project and it links and creates a front door to the four Missions. Between lands owned by the County, City and the National Park Service along with the natural river habitat, we will have more than 2,400 acres of park land – three times the size of Central Park in New York, right on the Southside.
We still have a lot of work to do to gain the UNESCO designation of a World Heritage Site for our five Missions. We need to encourage the federal government to pay its past dues to UNESCO. We need to continue to provide the expertise documentation to our application. We need to continue to write letters of support. We have until 2015, the year UNESCO will decide on the designation. But this is a community-wide effort that needs to take precedence and all of the political will we can muster around it. Let’s all work hard.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has held more elected offices than any other active elected official in San Antonio. He served as mayor of San Antonio from 1991-95. Wolff also is the author of three books, including “Mayor: An Inside View of San Antonio Politics, 1981-1995” and “Transforming San Antonio: An Insider’s View to the AT&T Arena, Toyota, the PGA Village, and the Riverwalk Extension,” and “Baseball For Real Men.”